Tuesday, June 28, 2005

OK, so "Atlas Shrugged" might be a bit over the top

It seems that Supreme Court Justice David Souter may not be making the best use of his home in New Hampshire. Might a hotel bring a greater public benefit?

Monday, June 27, 2005

The rights of man

I don't have strong feelings about today's seemingly muddled Supreme Court rulings regarding religious displays at government buildings. (For the purpose of this discussion, I'm excluding public schools, which were not involved in the court's decisions and which I believe should be regarded as sui generis when it comes to Establishment Clause cases). On the one hand, I don't see what purpose religious symbols serve at public buildings, other than to alienate nonbelievers and generally divide Americans. Nativity scenes and plaques of the Ten Commandments have nothing to do with the functions of government, and the role of religion in shaping the Republic has been largely exaggerated and misrepresented by Christian conservatives.

On the other hand, I also don't see the particular harm in, say, hanging the Ten Commandments in a court room. I understand that our Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion, is intended to protect the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. But it does not promise a life free of offense, nor protection from being exposed to beliefs that contradict one's own, even if those beliefs bear the imprimatur of government. I hate to sound like a Republican, but I find it troubling that every slight, every harm, no matter how trivial, that we suffer must be litigated, resolved through official action. Life is unfair, and government has limited authority and a limited obligation to change that.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Your land is their land

I've been quite busy lately, and I'm a little tired, so I'm afraid I can't muster much eloquence this evening. (Hell, maybe I never do.) But what I can summon is outrage--outrage that this is what passes for the rule of law, for sound constitutional reasoning, for justice.

The Supreme Court says that the government always knows better than you the best use for your private property, and that under the law, a Wal-Mart, or an office park, or an upscale housing development is a public use that allows the government to force you to sell your home, or farm, or office building. That government is the best arbiter of sound economic development. You think this decision isn't a farce? Try spending some time in the Hill District. Consider East Liberty's former pedestrian mall. Check out Allegheny Center. And that's just Pittsburgh.

But this case wasn't only about limiting the power of government. It was about protecting long-time residents and small business owners against the predations of big-box developers and retail conglomerates. Listen to the words of Sandra Day O'Connor:

"The specter of condemnation hangs over all property," she wrote. "Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory."

"Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private property, but the fallout from this decision will not be random," she wrote. "The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.

"As for the victims," Justice O'Connor went on, "the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result."

I don't think there's anything more to add.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Dude, my hands are floating

George Will, one of my favorite conservative columnists, offers an occassionally well-reasoned but flawed and contradictory defense of the war on drugs, and in particular the crackdown against marijuana users.

Will seems to imply the effort is working, noting that teenage marijuana use has declined by 18 percent over the last three years. This is significant, he writes, because, according to the U.S. drug czar, the chances that a person will use marijuana as an adult if they did not do so as a teen is slim.

But if the war on drugs is working, then why, as Will also explains, has the price of marijuana and other drugs decreased while their potency has increased? And if keeping marijuana away from teenagers and children is so important that we must make it illegal for adults as well, then why is alcohol, arguably much more destructive for all age groups, legal for adults?

Will has always been dismissive of the comparision between Prohibition and the war on drugs, noting as he does in this column that per-capita alcohol consumption fell during Prohibition and did not return to pre-Prohibition levels until the 1960s. That fails, of course, to take into account its unintended consequences--the growth of organized crime--nor does reflect an attempt to weight the costs in enforcement versus the benefits of an ostensibly more sober populace.

The fact of that matter is that alcohol has always been more socially acceptable than marijuana, but that's an arbitrary distinction. The bottom line is that government has no obligation nor should have any right to keep you from harming yourself, so long as you do not harm others. Keeping children from using mind-altering drugs until they are adults is a worthy and appropriate goal, but it does not merit taking away an adult's freedom to choose.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

How do you want your kid cooked?

Perhaps these drug dealers were misguided gourmets.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The suburbs may be hazardous to your health

The evidence continues to mount that high-density, walkable communities are healthier than the sprawling suburbs, via U.S. News and World Report:

Since 1960, the number of people commuting to work out of the county they live in jumped by 200 percent. Residential "sprawl" has meant a 250 percent increase in vehicle miles traveled. The average driver spends 443 hours yearly behind the wheel, the equivalent of 11 workweeks.

Driving displaces other activities, like exercise. "Being in a car doesn't do anything for you in terms of being thin," says Lawrence Frank of the University of British Columbia. "For every additional hour people spend in the car, there's a 6 percent increase in the likelihood of being obese."

Increased auto traffic is also a key source of ground-level ozone. Asthma rates among children, who are believed to be particularly sensitive to ozone, more than doubled between 1980 and 1995.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Gerrymander this

Law professor and legal writer Jeffrey Rosen offers this roundabout endorsement of taking the responsibility for drawing Congressional districts away from state legislatures and giving it to nonpartisan commissions. (An idea that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenhager has proposed for his state.)

Rosen argues that despite what liberal and conservative activists claim, recent federal court decisions--in particular Supreme Court rulings--are more representative of the wishes of the majority of the nation than the agendas of either major party. The reason, Rosen says, is that partisan gerrymandering has created ideologically pure legislative districts, creating an increasingly polarized House of Representatives. (With the Senate following suit, as many representatives go on to become Senators.) At the same time, he says, the Supreme Court, led by moderate Sandra Day O'Connor, has honed its ability to divine the political center and craft compromise decisions on a host of hot-button issues:

In other words, the conservative interest groups have it exactly backward. Their standard charge is that unelected judges are thwarting the will of the people by overturning laws passed by elected representatives. But in our new topsy-turvy world, it's the elected representatives who are thwarting the will of the people, which is being channeled instead by unelected judges.

Clearly, this is not an ideal situation. If O'Connor were still a legislator, she could be applauded for her moderation and political savvy, but Supreme Court justices are not supposed to align with the opinion polls more reliably than the Senate majority leader. Since judges are increasingly acting as political representatives of the people, it's not surprising that they are increasingly attacked in political terms. Consider the recent wave of judge bashing by Congressional Republicans, who accused judges of impeding the will of the people in the Terri Schiavo case. Never mind that in that case, it was actually the state and federal judges, rather than Congressional Republicans, whose decisions comported with the views of a majority of the public. The fact that politicians now feel emboldened to attack judges with whom they disagree suggests that the polarization in Congress may be threatening the public's respect for judges as neutral arbiters of the law.

Because Republicans are in the majority in most state legislatures, the current system benefits them the most. (Though in California they are the minority party, which is why some view Schwarzenhager's position with cynicism.) But it seems to me that no matter how you feel about abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, etc., if you value representative government, you have to be deeply troubled by a system in which politicians pick their voters, and not the other way around.

You only get one shot

Feel-good story of the weekend:


Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Where credit is due

Frequent readers of this blog--I think there may be enough to field a softball team--know I bash the Pittsburgh Urban Redevelopment Authority with regularity. So it's only fair that I now praise the URA for a project that I think worthy of its investment--residential redevelopment in Homewood. It's a grass-roots project that is spearheaded by a community organization, Building United of Southwestern Pennsylvania, which purchased the site of a former public housing complex in order to build single-family homes. The mortgages will be partially subsidized by the URA, and representatives of Building United say more people have been pre-qualified for mortgages than the number of homes that are available. (The URA also gave the organization a grant to tear down the public housing complex, and Building United lined up private financing for construction of new single-family homes.)

This is the formula for successful urban renewal that is described in the book "Comeback Cities". The book demonstrates that neighborhood organizations, through a mix of private and public investment (but acting with relative autonomy from government officials), can revitalize low-income communities and rebuild social capital. We'll see how it works in Homewood.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Clip show

My recent posts about SouthSide Works (also see Fester's thoughts here) and the coming battle over invitro fertilization elicited some interesting discussions. And my frequent anonymous commentor has some thoughts on John Kerry's recently disclosed military records, Howard Dean and pot-smoking sick people.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Don't bogart the Cheetos, Justice Thomas

Clarence Thomas, dissenting in today's Supreme Court decision upholding the federal government's right to prosecute users of medical marijuana, courtesy of TheAgitator.com:

If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything--and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers.
Certainly no evidence from the founding suggests that "commerce" included the mere possession of a good or some purely personal activity that did not involve trade or exchange for value. In the early days of the Republic, it would have been unthinkable that Congress could prohibit the local cultivation, possession, and consumption of marijuana.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Downtown, you're going to be alright now

The PG brings us word this morning that the latest Fifth-Forbes developer has pulled out of the project. That's the third developer to walk away from plans to redevelop the Downtown shopping district. And I have say I'm glad to see it happen. Two reasons: One, Downtown's plight is as much as symptom of the city's decline as it is a cause, and frankly, there are many other pressing problems we need to address. Second, city leaders have been acting from a flawed premise--that what Downtown needs is a "comprehensive" development plan, controlled by a single developer. That is not how truly vibrant urban neighborhoods grow, and it is not a sound strategy for revitalizing neighborhoods in decline.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Battle lines

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the looming showdown between the president and Congressional Republicans over a bill that would authorize more federal funding for stem cell research. I questioned why die-hard opponents of stem cell research don't also oppose invitro fertilization, a process that routinely results in the disposal of extra embryos.

Well, it turns out that they do, and as William Saletan notes in Slate, the next clash in the abortion debate will take place over invitro fertilization:

Four years ago, when Bush first discussed stem-cell research, he remarked sympathetically that IVF "helps so many couples conceive children" and that some leftover embryos were "donated to science." He referred three times not to the embryo's "life" but to its "potential" for life. "Many people are finding that the more they know about stem cell research, the less certain they are about the right ethical and moral conclusions," he said.

Since then, Bush's language has hardened. Last week, he called IVF embryos "real human lives" just like "the lives of those with diseases that might find cures" through stem-cell research. Embryos were no longer being "donated to science" (pro-lifers hate the term "donate" since it implies generosity and property rights); according to the president, their parents had chosen to "turn them over for research that destroys them." Bush implicitly contrasted these parents with those who chose the "life-affirming alternative" of embryo adoption. On the House floor, Majority Leader Tom DeLay called embryonic stem-cell research "the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings." Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., called it "the slaughter of human life."

It's hard to see how people who think this way can go on tolerating the surplus creation, freezing, and disposal of millions of IVF embryos. If you think they'll leave it to you because you're the parent, you don't understand pro-lifers. They believe what DeLay and other House Republicans said last week: Embryos belong to "the human family." It takes more than you and your spouse to decide your embryo's fate. It takes a village.

You think politics in this country is ugly now? Just wait until the religious right starts telling childless couples they are actually killing babies by trying to have one. And I thought Bush was a uniter, not a divider.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Thank you, Deep Throat

Whatever his motives, whether they were petty or noble, W. Mark Felt helped bring down a hopelessly corrupt president and our nation was the better for it. Don't ever let anyone tell you that Watergate was merely a third-rate burglary, or that Nixon's only crime was in getting caught. He was a despot in the making who was not content merely to defeat his opponents, but to destroy them. We can only be glad that in the end he was undone by his own paranoia. When Nixon died, it was Hunter S. Thompson who provided the only appropriate obituary:

He was the real thing--a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Gerald Ford, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Nixon and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Ford, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that "I know Iwill go to hell, because I pardoned Richard Nixon." ...

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism--which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful. ...

He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.